In Competition No. 2400 you were invited to write a sonnet picturing one of Hercules’ labours.
I used the word ‘picturing’ with a purpose: I wanted you to be visual. I was thinking of the sonnets in Les Trophées (two describe vividly the Nemean and Stymphalian missions), written by José-Maria de Heredia, that gifted, Cuban-born (father Spanish Creole, mother Norman) Parnassian French poet whose cameo-like glimpses of the Classical world enchanted me early. Out of the 12 labours, easily the most popular (are you filthy-minded?) was the cleansing of the Augean stables, which would have defeated seven maids with seven mops, sweeping for half a year. The winners, printed below, get £25 each, and Michael Swan scoops £30.
Cerberus stood there snarling, acting tough,A real performance. When he tried to fightI blew down all six ears to call his bluff,Brought him to heel, and headed for the light.You should have seen his faces, at the sightOf sunshine, flowers and rabbits. He went mad,Charged round all day, slept on my bed all night.I had a friend: the first I’d ever had.He could not settle, though, with us above.He pined for darkness. And I was afraid,For when the fit comes I kill those I love,As the gods know. A twelfth time, then, I paid: I took him to the trail that leads below, Kissed his three muzzles, wept, and let him go.Michael Swan
My final challenge was the mutant thing.It had — I couldn’t count the heads it had.Its tail concluded in a potent sting.A dog, yet not a dog. The news was bad.I’d heard about its ways, the liquid fearIt raised in visitors, this brute near-cloneOf monstrous parents. Still, my task was clear:To quell it with my body strength alone.For preparation, I immersed my soulIn the Eleusinian Mysteries, untilNo force could shake my vision of my goal,No beast of Hades break my steadfast will.And I was glad that, though I had to striveTo fight and win, I left my foe alive.Basil Ransome-Davies
A noisome place: a bog, some trees, all bare,And everywhere the putrid smell of death;For this was where the Hydra had its lair,Nine heads, each spitting poison on its breath.Undaunted ever, Hercules attackedAnd with his whirling club struck off a head,Yet saw at once that, even as he hacked,Where one had gone two heads had grown instead.So then he turned and set ablaze the wood,Took flaming boughs and made his weapon fire:All heads but one were now destroyed for good;The last he buried deep within the mire. One battle won, but soon there would be more: He dipped his arrows in the deadly gore.W.J. Webster
Near Argos lived the Hydra with nine headsThat plagued the town of Lerna; no one daredApproach the monster; people in their beds Would scream in terror every time they heard The serpent’s nightly hiss. Then HerculesUndaunted took his sword and swiftly slewEach poison-spitting head, but with cruel ease,Whence one mouth was, there sprang another two.When Iolaus, watching, took a brandAnd burnt each bleeding stump, the Hydra fell;The deathless head was buried deep in sandWith stones atop to mask the noxious smell. But angered by Jove’s upstart son’s success, Juno retrieved the head — and taught it chess.Frank McDonald
When first I saw those cursed Stymphalian birdsSo many and so huge, I felt despair.They squatted on the trees like stinking herdsOf hogs with wings; their clamour filled the air.No shouting and no beating shields with spearsCould stir a single one from its high seat,And I began to have the faintest fearsThat I might not achieve this latest feat.But fair Athene saw I needed aidAnd brought me down some magic castanets.Though not so loud, the clatter that they madeDislodged those creatures. While their silhouettesFlew past the sun, I killed them, every one,With my sling-shot. Another labour done.Alanna Blake
Mops and buckets, shovels won’t assist,If you’ve the mother of a bob-a-job —Where goats and cows and sheep have shit or pissedIn shedloads, you won’t know which way to swab.Our wide boy has a side bet: ten per centOf stock, if he can uncrud all the stablesAnd exorcise their tons of excrement:What happens next becomes the stuff of fables.So take two handy rivers (simple, really),And dam or dig until they are diverted,Their currents running through the dung, till clearlyThe ordure shifts. The owner’s disconcerted,But has to pay (there’s witness to the drama):Our superhero’s now a dairy farmer.Bill Greenwell
No. 2403: Bathos, not pathos‘O Chatterton! how very sad thy fate!’ exclaimed Keats unfortunately. You are invited to supply a poem lamenting the fate of a famous person in which bathos is the keynote. Maximum 16 lines. Entries to ‘Competition No. 2403’ by 28 July.